Improve #12: STEP ONE - Clarify the Problem

Updated: Mar 12

If you understood the PDCA cycle, you understood the core of continuous improvement. Edward Deming's philosophy revolutionized the Japanese industry with the development of Quality Improvement. Companies went from having acceptable quality for most items produced, to having TOTAL quality for all products. Now that we understand the PDCA cycle, we will break it down a little more so that it becomes easier to implement. We are increasing from PDCA's 4 steps to these 8 steps, but don't worry. Eventually, these steps will become second nature to you. They are easy to understand, and they all work together.


As previously discussed, Toyota's success comes from the intentional dedication to their problem-solving method based on Plan-Do-Check-Act. These steps are: 1. Clarify the Problem 2. Breakdown the Problem 3. Set the Target 4. Analyze the Root Cause 5. Develop Countermeasures 6. Implement Countermeasures 7. Monitor Results and Process 8. Standardize and Share Success


5 of the 8 steps are part of the PLAN stage. Let's look at them one by one.

STEP ONE - Clarify the Problem



What is a problem? A problem is a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome. Knowing what the real problem is determining the outcome of your efforts. A doctor prescribes ibuprofen to treat a fever. If the fever doesn't go away, there may be an infection, therefore, antibiotics need to be prescribed. There is a difference between symptoms and illness. This is exactly what happens in problem-solving.

Let's define "problem" in the context of quality.

A problem can be defined in one of three ways. The first being anything that is a deviation from the standard. The second could be the gap between the actual condition and the desired condition. The third could be an unmet customer need.


The goal of this step is to see the problem clearly. This will involve observation and direct involvement. One must see and understand the problem with their own eyes, therefore, observation is primordial. This illuminates the details and hands-on experience that will allow moving forward in the process.

For example, many companies experience a reduction in sales for external reasons. This would be a symptom, not the problem. The problem would be that sales decrease due to internal issues such as poor customer service, poor product quality, etc. A bigger problem would be that no one admits that there is a problem. Honesty is essential.

A problem solver is always open to hearing the worst. Don't confuse a fever with a bacterial infection. It is a good thing to identify symptoms because they can actually help pinpoint a problem, but beware not to get confused. How do we clarify the problem?


  1. Observe, ask questions, and make distinctions between symptoms and problems. Decide why it is a problem

  2. Determine the benefits of solving the problem.

  3. Consider how it fits into the business as a whole and the effects it will have on current goals.

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